Lt. Col. Ashby Taylor (USAF-ret.), a museum docent, described the P-47 and its role in the Battle for France during a presentation to a full house at Westpac on July 17. Six hundred and seventy-six people visited the museum that day, a record. Many came to to hear the presentation, which included a public flight of our P-47D by volunteer and pilot Alan Wojciak.
Paris and rest of France -- as well as Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium -- fell to Hitler's Germany between May 10 and June 20, 1940. The battle to win back these and other countries began four years later with the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of beaches in France's Normandy region.
The U.S. Ninth Air Force, which flew P-47s and other tactical planes in Europe to support Allied soldiers in WWII, was charged with covering the beaches on that and following days, Taylor said.
P-47s of the Ninth assumed a major role when Allied ground forces finally broke out of the hedgerows south of the beaches. Hedgerows – thick growths of shrubs and trees bordering roads and fields -- made ideal defensive positions for German soldiers, helping them to stall the Allied advance for 77 days.
But the Allies could not be turned back. "German officers attributed their failure to defeat the Allied breakout across France to the power of the 'Jabos,'" or fighter-bombers, Taylor said.
Taylor said the P-47s "would descend to treetop level to attack anything that moved on the narrow French roads." The Thunderbolt’s deadly armament – including eight .50-cal. machine guns, each of which could fire 600 to 800 rounds per minute, and 5-inch rockets or 2,500 pounds of bombs – helped Allied soldiers move forward.
P-47s initially flew from bases in England. But, as ground was seized, they flew from airfields that were quickly built in the Norman countryside. They were 5,000 feet long and close to the constantly moving front lines. A total of 280 of the temporary strips were built as Allied forces moved east through France. Planes also flew from captured German airfields.
The Allies began to break out of Normandy at Saint-Lo, France, on July 25, 1944. Six hundred low-flying Allied fighter-bombers of the Ninth Air Force were the first to fly in Operation Cobra. They concentrated their fire on enemy artillery and strong points.
Then 1,800 heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force struck from high altitude.
But because dust and smoke from the previous attack made it difficult for bombardiers to see, bombs were released too soon, killing 111 American soldiers, including Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, the highest-ranking U.S. soldier killed in the European Theater of Operations.
But German troops were stunned. Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, Commander of the proficient and well-trained Panzer Lehr Division, described the actions by Allied bombers as "hell.... The fields were burning and smoldering. My frontlines looked like a landscape on the moon, and at least 70 percent of my personnel were out of action."
“Out in front everyone is holding out,” Bayerlein said. “…My grenadiers and my engineers. Not a single man is leaving his post. They are lying silent in their foxholes for they are dead. You may report to the Field Mashal [Gunther von Kluge, Commander of Germany’s Army Group B] that the Panzer Lehr Division is annihilated.”
Three days later, on July 28, German defenses around Saint-Lo collapsed. Thunderbolts from the 405th Fighter Group destroyed a German column of 122 tanks, 259 vehicles and 11 artillery pieces.
The final and decisive battle for Normandy took place shortly thereafter. P-47s were again heavily involved, joined by British Hawker Typhoons. Allied forces encircled and destroyed von Kluge’s force in the August 12-21 battle at Falaise.
The way was now open to Paris, and German troops there surrendered on August 25. The border of Germany itself lay ahead.
By this time, it was "impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine" River, said Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt, Commander of German Forces in the West.
Thunderbolts were active in the big battles that followed Falaise, Taylor said:
* Hurtgen Forest, September 19 to December 16, 1944 -- the longest battle on German ground in World War II, and the longest single battle of the war. The U.S. First Army suffered 33,000 casualties.
* Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945 -- the final attempt by German forces to throw the Allies back. The goal was to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp. The full force of Allied airpower, including fighter-bombers like the P-47, was brought to bear when the weather cleared on Dec. 23, and the German thrust failed.
* Operation Varsity, the crossing of the northern Rhine River, March 22 to 28, 1945. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.
"If it's camouflaged, it's British; if it's silver, it's American; if it's not there, it's German," one German soldier said.
Docent Taylor -- a fighter pilot with 21 years of service in the U.S. Air Force who flew 160 combat missions in Vietnam and attended the USAF Fighter Weapons School and Test Pilot School -- described several kinds of Thunderbolt missions, including close air support and armored column cover.